During the summer and fall is when the North Fork is its busiest. But when the weather gets cold, that doesn’t mean it’s time to pack it up for businesses. This month, we’re getting a behind the scenes look at what different farms are doing during the off season to keep their businesses running.
The last time I visited Chris Kelly’s beekeeping operation, Promised Land Apiaries, it was a lot warmer, but to be fair, it was also April. This time, apiaries that the bees call home (about four stories high to a bee, but two-feet high in human terms) are surrounded by a blanket of snow. I also see many fewer bees: During the winter months, they stay close to stay warm, and there aren’t many pollen rich plants to explore.
Kelly’s off-season splits his hives into two groups. One is keeping them outside, like the hives at his house, frequently checking to make sure they have enough food but not keeping the roof off for more than 30 seconds. This is the method he has used every year, and it’s one that doesn’t require much work on his part.
The other group is being kept using a new method called indoor overwintering.
In a clear greenhouse on the Barking Hollow Farm property in New Suffolk is Kelly’s experiment. The process is new to him but it has been used by beekeepers in the past. He built a small wooden structure insulated with a tarp inside the greenhouse, allowing the 22 hives inside to stay in the dark.
The idea, he said, “is to try to keep the bees in a completely dark room so that they don’t actually fly. If you stabilize the actual temperatures for them, what you do is reduce the stress load on them.” This way, the hive can conserve its honey and fight off the mites, one of their greatest threats.
From the outside, I would just think it was a boring, old box, but when Kelly moved the tarp to the side, and the light from the outside spilled into the darkness, I could feel the heat coming from inside — a kind of bee body heat. “When they cluster up, they create quite a bit of heat,” he said. Inside are the same structures he had outside, but now they are kept in pitch black.
Just outside the structure, the ground is littered with bees who have flown from their hive and died. Kelly notices the glimmer of concern on my face. “What this says to you is that the bees that are going to die are coming out and dying,” he reassures me. “By Friday I’ll sweep this up, and it just repeats the cycle.”
Kelly is here about every three days to monitor the bees. He checks the temperature, cleans and does mite treatments if necessary.
“As a beekeeper, [indoor overwintering] has been quite a change because it makes my so called off season much busier,” he said. But the goal is to help the bees have a better chance of survival into the spring and summer. In the traditional method, where the bees are left outside and Kelly has little work other than feeding them, the temperature changes put more stress on the hives and make it harder for them to fight off mites.
“With indoor overwintering, we’ll see what kind of survival rate we get, what kind of problems we ended up running into. If I get this perfected in the next couple of years, I could see me moving most of them in, and it will actually save me time.”
Come May and April, the honey will start flowing, and by summer Kelly and other area beekeepers will have jars of the local honey so coveted across the North Fork.